U2 – “Songs of Innocence”

(Photo Credit: www.engadget.com)

(Photo Credit: http://www.engadget.com)

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” “Cedarwood Road”

There’s a new U2 album out. It’s called “Songs of Innocence,” and you probably found it in your iTunes account. It’s free. Take it or leave it, listen to it or don’t, because nothing has ever mattered less. It’s not very good, but it’s what you’d expect from a U2 album. Exactly.

U2’s personally invasive new album has an interesting marketing strategy – ‘what if people just, like, had it?’ The band is giving their album away for free to all iTunes users in all countries, which in any year past 2005, is about everyone. It’s bold, but when you consider the band’s often convoluted and conflicting messages, it, like the album itself, is just another thing to hold against them.

U2, on this album, are practicing both of the worst evils. There are some songs, like “California (There is No End to Love),” that don’t sound like U2’s template. And then there are some, like “Iris (Hold Me Close),” that fit their template exactly. Listen to the song and tell me it doesn’t fit in just as easily on “War,” or “Atomic Bomb,” or “Joshua Tree.” “Songs of Innocence” is filled with songs that either sound way too much like U2, or not nearly enough. U2’s go-to template isn’t exactly run dry – it’s never truly been copied (though Coldplay’s still trying), but it is tired. There’s only so many high-neck frets the Edge can touch, and he’s pretty much exhausted them. U2’s problem in 2014 is ultimately the same they faced in the 90’s – they don’t know how to do anything new.

“Songs of Innocence” is constructed in typical U2 fashion. The first song has a certain energy, and the Edge contributes an admittedly nice riff. The next four songs, meanwhile, are all slow pop-ish ballads that kill any momentum set up by the opener. The last six songs see the band relaxing and trying out different influences – there’s a great bluesy song (“Cedarwood Road”) and a pretty meh synth-based one (“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”) among the mix. There’s also a few rockers, that could’ve benefited from a different track order. That’s pretty much been the standard since U2’s 90’s experiments.

But, look, a straight review doesn’t matter because 1) Everyone’s got this album for free, so you might as well listen to it and 2) U2’s the biggest goddamned band on this planet, so my stray observations aren’t going to influence anyone. So, let’s talk instead about this questionable marketing strategy. U2’s previous album, 2009’s kinda actually underrated “No Line on the Horizon” became a thorn for the band. Bono was unimpressed with the album’s sales. It produced only one hit, and not a big one, and it sold less than almost every prior album of theirs. So the band was a little scared that they are no longer “relevant” in today’s music, and took to a newer strategy than straight album sales. But here’s the thing – that album “underperforming” still meant hitting #1 in 30 countries, setting sales records in Brazil, becoming the seventh highest selling album in 2009 globally, and producing the highest-grossing tour in history. That’s U2 on a bad day. So was this questionable, unwarranted release necessary? No, it wasn’t. And it goes against the album’s themes.

“Songs of Innocence” is largely centered around the band’s members growing up in their native Ireland, listening to punk music. Their opener is even titled, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).” And they released this album for free, that’s a very punk thing to do. But, it’s the band’s fortieth anniversary (Ruby!), and they’ve always tried to be punk, and they’ve never succeeded. Releasing your album for free is completely negated when it’s not only through the world’s biggest corporation, but against it’s customer’s wills. That’s not punk. That’s way not punk. And it’s not like U2 is the first to release their music for free, or by surprise – “Beyonce” wasn’t attached to any corporate releases, and “In Rainbows” and “The Slip” were released for free simply for fan appreciation (and both in 2008). iTunes users don’t really have a choice in whether they want to download the album or not, and sure you can just delete it right after, but still. U2 has so much shoved up their asses that it’s the absolute opposite of punk. 5 million wasn’t a big enough of a reach for the band, so they hit a bigger reach regardless of the financial losses with it.

So one final note on the marketing. If you’re gonna do a bold strategy, you’d better have the album to back it up. “Beyonce” was a rap/R&B/pop odyssey and “In Rainbows” was an unnervingly melodic album. “The Slip” didn’t work that well, and NIN didn’t have as much success with it. This album doesn’t work well. It’s like every other U2 album, pretty much no better or worse. People getting it for free are likely going to shrug and accept it, maybe listen to it once and forget about it. There’s nothing special about this album, and release strategy be damned, the quality of the music is still what’s going to grab people. Maybe, U2, you should actually just accept that you don’t know how to play any other songs. You’re still going to get millions.

If you like this, try: Going outside, for once

-By Andrew McNally

Nine Inch Nails – “Hesitation Marks”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Copy of A,” “Came Back Haunted”

The most immediate thing about “Hesitation Marks” is that Trent Reznor went through some changes in his time off from Nine Inch Nails. There’s no way of knowing what, but forming a band with his wife and winning, of all things, an Academy Award both seem to have livened him up, just a little. “Hesitation Marks” is distinctly a Nine Inch Nails record – lengthy, synth-based tracks with many layers of sound. But there is something gone, and it’s the gloom-and-doom feel. I hesitate to say it’s ‘missing’ because Reznor never really sounds like he’s trying to recapture it. Instead of lyrics about fear of religion and death and mutilation, there’s more inward songs about betrayal and personal responsibility. There may be keyboards and synthesizers abound, but the songs are more structured and sound more accessible than previous Nine Inch Nails records. Reznor did something no one saw coming. He made a rock album.

This isn’t a bad thing, either, because it works for the most part. The album starts off with a 52 second intro, before kicking off with two of the faster songs, “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted.” A majority of the songs hover in the 5-6 minute range and follow typical rock song structures. The songs generally get slower as the album goes on, before ending with a 1:29 instrumental outro. Reznor concocted a typical rock album, just one that lacks in guitar.

“Hesitation Marks” lacks the heaviness that is present on nearly all of his past albums. “The Downward Spiral” was one of the best albums of the 90’s because of it’s wicked and menacing layers of volume. “Ruiner” actually sounded like an empire collapsing, and “March of the Pigs” was a better punk song than most punk bands are capable of writing. The layers are present on “Hesitation Marks,” but the outward anger is gone, both lyrically and musically. Instead, we get a more early-80’s sound, like Reznor opening the door a bit for Depeche Mode. While it’s disappointing on paper, Reznor still pulls it off remarkably. The album drags at points, and it’s less memorable than most NIN records, but it is still its own great thing. This is a different side of Reznor, still angry but at different targets, and flirting with commercialism. And at 61 minutes long, there’s a lot of it to take in.

-By Andrew McNally